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Housing crisis seen in local lawns

SAN MARCOS — Foreclosures are on the rise and some San Marcos neighborhoods are looking a little shabby as a result. Shortly after San Elijo Hills resident Joan Cook asked the caretaker of a foreclosed house in her neighborhood to trim his overgrown lawn, Cook found the lawn had been completely removed, leaving bare dirt.
Incensed, she presented a petition of protest before City Council at the Oct. 14 meeting, sparking an in-depth discussion on retooling the city’s landscaping policy. The petition requested that City Council pass an ordinance that would establish landscaping guidelines and responsibilities.
“We’ve had a lot of foreclosures,” Cook said. “We’ve had a lot of bank-owned houses that have been neglected. … In these economic times, we need something like this.”
According to Karl Schwarm, director of housing and neighborhood services, complaints like these have tripled in the last year with issues ranging from dead lawns to kicked-in doors. For the most part, Schwarm said, the banks have been very cooperative on correcting any problems because they want to sell the property as quickly as they can.
“By and large, the lenders have been pretty good,” City Manager Paul Malone said. “It’s starting to slip a little bit. As their inventory of take-backs goes up, their attention gets a little diffused, if you will.”
The state of California recently passed a landscaping law that allows cities to cite owners of ill-maintained properties. Mayor Jim Desmond supported an aggressive policy of fining to keep the problem at bay. He also suggested publishing a list of the fined properties in a weekly newsletter.
“I don’t want to be too onerous, but this is not the first time we’ve heard this from our residents,” Desmond said. “We know we’ve got to keep on top of this. We understand the housing market, and the rest of us who are keeping put want to maintain the values that we have.”
Malone countered that the city was being as aggressive as it could with the tools at its disposal.
“One of the drawbacks, unfortunately, for the state law is while it requires that landscaping and lawns be cut, it doesn’t require that they be kept green,” Malone said. “That was a bit of an oversight, unfortunately.”
The city manager added that his staff was nearly finished with a comprehensive property appearance ordinance that would apply to both commercial and resident properties and would address exactly the sort of problem that Cook had come to the meeting about.
“We could have that finished as early as November, no later than December,” Malone said.
Councilman Mike Preston cautioned against being too strict with the new ordinance.
“We go down a slippery slope when we go to these appearance ordinances,” Preston said. “Yes, we want to stop the worst offenders and have some kind of level of beautiful city. But I don’t want to end up penalizing people because they’re trying to save water or trying to meet some other goals.”
The council concluded the discussion by urging residents with landscaping complaints to contact the Code Compliance Hot Line at (760) 744-1050, ext. 3206.